Sheila Udall, EMCC UK Volunteer and Governor Member, reflects on the importance of contracting, especially during this time of crisis when coaches, mentors and supervisors are working remotely with clients. Sheila has started a conversation about this on LinkedIn – do join us there.
The current crisis is prompting lots of firsts, and this is no different. I am no digital expert, but with considerable experience of coaching by phone, Skype and more recently Zoom, I have definitely learnt some lessons which I am happy to share. At the same time, I know many EMCC UK members will have great insights from their own experience, so while this may be a longer read than most blogs, I hope it triggers what will be a rich and ongoing discussion.
First and foremost, all the elements of professional conduct, as defined in the Global Code of Ethics for Coaches and Mentors, apply to coaching remotely, but when working remotely with clients I have learnt that contracting (including issues of confidentiality) needs extra attention.
Contracting is sometimes seen as a necessary, but not very interesting part of the coaching process, but if it establishes clarity, boundaries, focus and clear mutual expectations, it provides a sound basis for excellent coaching and I find the 3P framework, learnt early in my training, a solid foundation for coaching remotely. The 3 Ps are:
Contracting covers the logistics and business arrangements. How many sessions? How long will they last? When (and how) scheduled? Where will I /the client be? What are the payment arrangements? Wherever possible I agree these points before the coaching starts and in writing, both directly with the client and, if appropriate, with a commissioner or third party in a three way process. Working remotely, I have learnt to double check:
• If a session needs to be shorter than usual, or have a ‘pause’ in order hold focus and allow for comfort breaks
• That we will both be in private spaces and have reliable access to the expected platform and
• We have a backup plan for connecting – living in the country, with a sometimes unreliable internet connection, that may mean agreeing to share email or extra phone details in advance
• That if possible we both use headsets or ear buds, for better sound quality and to be handsfree
• We both have pen and note pad to hand to make notes or draw something, if that will help the client ‘see’ things more clearly.
Contracting covers the themes and issues for the coaching. What outcome is the client looking for? What would success look like? What are the boundaries to the conversation? Who has responsibility for what? As with all coaching, the focus varies. Sometimes a client is really clear what they want from the outset, sometimes they need to discuss and explore their situation and their issue for the clarity to emerge. Working remotely, and particularly by phone, I have learnt:
• It is easier to do more explorative coaching when I can see the client (in order to gauge and match their pace) whereas focused coaching works equally well by phone
• To ask the client if they have worked or been coached this way before and what that means for them in our session
• To be very clear about the remit and boundaries to our coaching (the less formal setting of working from home could invite more personal, less professional exchanges)
• To pay close attention to language, tone and other clues to gauge the client’s feelings as well as thinking
• To specifically ask the client to summarise what they are taking from the session, and will do next
• To be clear and agree about note taking – who takes notes, in what format, and what will happen to them after the session
Often referred to as the ‘unwritten expectations’ or ‘how we are with each other’, this is about the process rather than the content of the coaching. It includes how much structure or fluidity, and how much support and challenge, the client wants and needs? What does support look like? What constitutes stretch for that individual and what would be unhelpful, even unacceptable, challenge? If the client is struggling with a particular issue or question, do we agree that I can offer my own insights?
With remote coaching, and without the person in front of you, it can be easier to feel pressure to ‘get on with’, or even ‘get lost in’ the content. So I have learnt:
• To ensure we contract for mutual expectations upfront, either by email or asking at the start of a session. For example: ‘For this to be time well spent, how do we want to work together?’
• To include regular process checks and encouragement to promote good rhythm and flow
• Particularly in phone-based coaching, when there are no visual clues, to ask ‘what’s going on for you just now?’ or ‘how are we doing?’ This came from working with a client facing compulsory redundancy. I could hear her sniffling and blowing her nose quite often, so asked, ‘Can I just check – are you OK?’ and she said, ‘Oh yes, I’ve just got a really bad cold, let’s carry on’.
Learning from working digitally
Being home-based for a number of years, I have also discovered it is important to do the following:
Plan to be as professional as if I am meeting the client in person. This means taking time to prepare mentally and physically, doing my homework, ensuring I am on time, and agreeing with family members – no interruptions!
Pace the conversation. I once read that on average it takes at least seven seconds for a person to think of the answer to a good question. This can feel like a long time especially if you cannot see the person so make sure I slow down, hold the silence and wait, occasionally asking if they are still thinking and need longer or are ready to move on.
Pay attention to patterns and nuances in what the client says and how they communicate. In fact, I find this both easier and more profound with phone-based coaching, because I am totally focused on listening. I also need to pay attention to my own language and non-verbal habits. Coaching remotely, I am more alert to avoiding jargon and, if I slip, to ask, ‘is that a familiar term?’ or, ‘does that make sense, shall I rephrase it?’
Prioritise the psychological contract to build the relationship. Working digitally, it is easy to forget what we do when meeting someone in person. Even the basics of human contact really matter. Such as, ‘Hello, it’s good to “meet” you’, or ‘How are you?’ or, ‘Thank you and goodbye’.
I once heard David Megginson ask ‘Does contracting make the coaching experience smaller?’ I love the play on words – but don’t agree. Certainly with remote coaching I believe clear and comprehensive contracting actually facilitates a richer coaching experience.
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with these ideas? What is missing? What would you add from your own experience? As well as being posted on the EMCC UK website, we are starting a conversation on LinkedIn – do join us!
Stay safe, well and keep in touch.
Sheila Udall is an EMCC UK Volunteer and Governor Member
Photo: Susanna Marsiglia/Unsplash